Strong opinions, weakly held

A few thoughts on Osama bin Laden


I take no pleasure in the death of Osama bin Laden. That the United States managed to locate him and kill him was a victory for justice. He unrepentantly ordered the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and finding him was important on those grounds alone, regardless of whether doing so strengthens or weakens al-Qaeda or anyone else.

The first question I wondered about was whether the soldiers who conducted the raid were ordered to kill or capture Osama bin Laden or just kill him. I read today that the order was to kill him. In principle, I have a problem with that. I don’t like the idea of soldiers being sent on a mission to kill someone regardless of the circumstances in which they are found. That bothers me from a “rule of law” standpoint. (And I’m not the only person who feels that way.)

At the same time, I think it could be argued that the operation to take out Osama bin Laden has a lot in common with Operation Vengeance: Japanese naval commander Isoroku Yamamoto was killed when US aircraft ambushed his plane on April 18, 1943 after US intelligence had obtained his travel plans.

The operation was conducted secretly in Pakistan and attempting to capture bin Laden would have complicated the mission. So while I’m not thrilled at the choice, I think this is one of those cases where the laws of war actually do apply.

Looking at the bigger picture, Radley Balko points out that before he died, Osama bin Laden met and exceeded all of his goals with regard to the United States. Thanks in large part to bin Laden, America is a less free, more frightened place than it was before. We’ve traded tangible rights for dubious security benefits and we’ve tossed aside the Constitution whenever it has been convenient. Bin Laden could probably take credit for drawing the United States into two largely unsuccessful wars.

My hope at this point is that the death of bin Laden ends the era where fighting terrorism is an acceptable justification for anything the government wants to do. It’s clear from the celebrations that this is a cathartic moment for many Americans. Hopefully that catharsis will lead us to rethink the liberties we are willing to sacrifice in the name of security.

We are already seeing people who are heavily invested in freeing the government from its Constitutional restraints resist this, eagerly pointing out that the name of Osama bin Laden’s courier was obtained from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, famously subjected to torture at Guantanamo Bay. The courier’s identity was confirmed by Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was also tortured.

It can easily be argued that capturing high level al-Qaeda members like KSM and al-Libi was essential to finding bin Laden. I would argue that the case for torturing them is less clear. Interrogators have been obtaining information from detainees without torture for a very long time, and we don’t know the circumstances under which this information was obtained. There is no control group for the torture experiment. To put my cards on the table, if not torturing detainees meant that we wouldn’t have found Osama bin Laden, I would still choose to reject torture.

Update: In the comments, Earwig argues with the contention that it was an assassination mission. I had assumed from the beginning that the mission was to capture or kill bin Laden, but this morning John Dickerson referred to it flatly as an assassination. Marc Ambinder’s article on the operation seems to make it clear that bin Laden was executed:

After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap — boom, boom — to the left side of his face. His body was aboard the choppers that made the trip back.

And Reuters ran a piece this morning with the headline, U.S. team’s mission was to kill bin Laden, not capture. So that’s what I was going by.

Today in a briefing, John Brennan, the President’s advisor on counterterrorism, said they would have taken bin Laden alive had he not resisted:

Q: Thank you, sir. I wanted to ask about the specific goal of the raid. Was there a consideration to try to take bin Laden alive, or was the mission to kill him on sight?

MR. BRENNAN: Absolutely it was to prepare for all contingencies. If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that. We had discussed that extensively in a number of meetings in the White House and with the President. The concern was that bin Laden would oppose any type of capture operation. Indeed, he did. It was a firefight. He, therefore, was killed in that firefight and that’s when the remains were removed.

But we certainly were planning for the possibility, which we thought was going to be remote, given that he would likely resist arrest, but that we would be able to capture him.

Update: Donald Rumsfeld rejects the assertion that the information about bin Laden’s courier was obtained through torture (however you choose to define it).


  1. “I read today that the order was to kill him.”

    Then you should tell us where you read that. It’s not what I read. It’s not what was said at today’s press conference.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Rafe. It’s courageous of you to even speak such an opinion. I find the revelry surrounding his death totally alien to my way of thinking, but then so much of conventional wisdom is these days. If his death was indeed an on-the-spot execution and not just a consequence of the firefight with the primary aim of his capture, well, that speaks all the worse of our culture.

  3. I suspect this eventuality is one of the reasons the ‘War on Terror’ has been allowed to go on so long. Being at war sidesteps the Ford Doctrine when dealing with Bin Laden.

    The door is open now for President Obama to contemplate a withdrawal from Afghanistan, if it remains inauspicious.

  4. The wording in Ambinder’s article doesn’t say he was executed, only that he was shot twice in the head (which could have happened during a fire fight). And recent reports state that he was shot in the chest and head (although with the body buried at sea I guess the details are conspiracy theory fodder now anyway).

  5. Small sidepoint… Yamamoto did indeed execute the plans of his government, but tried repeatedly to influence his government to moderate its stance.

    The comparison of a man in such a tragic position to someone of far lesser honor, that’s what struck me….

  6. I agree that Yamamoto and Osama Bin Laden have nothing in common with regard to their lives.

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